This being my first real entry, I thought it would be most appropriate to start at the beginning. That is, in this week’s posts I will explore the history of body modification to give contemporary modifiers a sense of its various past significances. It is my hope that this information will provide those new to body modification with a different perspective on the extraordinary meaningfulness of permanently altering one’s body.
Among the many rituals enacted by Native Americans and other indigenous peoples for the purpose of appeasing a variety of gods and sacred deities is the practice commonly referred to as body suspension. Although most modern body suspensions differ dramatically from these ceremonies both in method and meaning, suspensions in general have been reported to often produce trance-like states in individuals undergoing the rituals. There are a number of different types of suspensions, ranging from so-called ‘suicide’ suspensions in which the participant is hung vertically by two to four metal hooks pierced through the upper back, to the Faulkner suspension which involves hanging upside-down from hooks placed in the skin just above the knees. Another form of suspension, often referred to as a vertical chest suspension, or an O-Kee Pa suspension, originated in the Mandan tribe of present-day North and South Dakota. Many modern suspension teams deem the use of the term “O-Kee Pa” for any kind of vertical chest suspension a cultural appropriation because it was originally used as a sacred ritual intended to pay homage to the food and water gods and gain holy approval in the selection of new leaders. The suspension itself was only one feature of the O-Kee Pa ritual, which also included a number of religious dances and a four-day vigil held without food, water, or sleep.
After the four days had passed, those undergoing the suspension itself were pierced through the chest with sharp wooden skewers attached to ropes hung over a large wooden frame. The ropes were then pulled as to suspend each man (women were not even allowed to watch this ceremony) from the frame. Each individual suspension lasted until the participant had lost consciousness, at which time he was removed from the frame and guarded until coming-to. The final stage of the ceremony involved the amputation of one or both pinky fingers by a medicine man, and an exhausting sprint around the village. Those Mandans who completed the entire ritual received a great deal of praise from the rest of the tribe, and those who completed it most courageously were given special consideration in the selection of new leaders.
For the Mandans, the O-Kee Pa ritual was an intense test of courage and devotion to the tribe. The exhilaration of completing such a ceremony as well as the transient state achieved during such surely served as additional rewards. O-Kee Pa is an early textbook example of the physical pain that body modifiers will endure in order to reap the spiritual and life-changing benefits of such extreme practices.
If you enjoyed this post, check back next week when I will contrast culturally significant rituals such as O-Kee Pa suspension with modern suspension practices to see how the meanings behind them differ.
Please comment if you read this! I want to hear suggestions, criticism; anything you can contribute will be greatly appreciated!